STEVE BOUSER: What Do You Mean, Pontiacs Are Vanishing?
I took two recent pieces of automotive news very personally: General Motors' decision to deep-six the Pontiac and Chrysler's declaration of bankruptcy.
The first car I ever (briefly) owned, you see, was a medium-blue 1954 Pontiac, purchased in 1963 from a fellow soldier at Fort Dix, N.J. The second was a dark-blue 1950 Plymouth -- made, of course, by Chrysler Corp. -- which my grandfather sold to me for $50 upon my return to Missouri. And the third, which I later bought as a student at Southwest Missouri State, was a light-blue 1963 Pontiac Tempest.
(Actually, there was an oddball, red-and-white 1963 Volvo in between Nos. 2 and 3, but it hardly counts. It lasted only until I stupidly drove it down a rain-flooded alley in Springfield on the way to my night job as an obituary writer at the local newspaper. It promptly stalled out, almost turning me into the subject of an obit myself as I narrowly escaped the muddy, rapidly rising water through a window.)
Anyway, it is painfully difficult for me to believe that brand names that were such an integral part of my growing-up in the Middle America of the mid-20th century are now endangered species.
I remember hardly anything about that first 1954 Pontiac Star Chief, except that it was built like a tank and had a chrome logo on it that still featured a feathered profile of its namesake Indian chief. I don't know what ever happened to it, though I presumably resold it to another Cold Warrior upon my discharge. I do know I took the train home.
My granddad Bouser was something of a fuddy-duddy. And that round-fendered, hulking '50 Plymouth -- which he practically gifted into my grateful hands because he couldn't drive it anymore -- was something of a fuddy-duddy car. The main thing I remember about it was having to lean way over and grab the right-hand door handle any time I turned left, lest the door swing open and clobber the nearest pedestrian.
That '63 Tempest, bought after my first marriage and before my graduation, was my first "real" car -- meaning that it was halfway new and didn't look like a wreck and all the doors stayed shut. So it still occupies a slightly warm spot in my heart -- even though it surely has to rank as one of the junkiest pieces of (expletive deleted) Detroit ever produced.
The Tempest was part of the front-engine "BOP" team -- Buick Special, Oldsmobile F-85, Pontiac Tempest -- that represented GM's first venture back into the compact field after the rear-engine Corvair disaster. Mine had an anemic four-cylinder engine that would hardly get you up a hill and a pitiful little gear selector on the dashboard that didn't have a "Park" setting, so you had to remember to put on the emergency brake before you got out to keep it from rolling away.
Back in my teenage years, I could instantly tell you the make and year of just about any American-made car from a block away. I can still rattle off the familiar Chrysler Corp. lineup from all those TV commercials in the late 1950s: "Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto, Chrysler -- and the exclusive Imperial."
Since then, I confess, the whole Big Three thing has pretty much lost its mystique for me. Pontiac, in particular, went off my radar somewhere around the 1970s, with all those silly muscle cars with "Trans" and "Grand" in their names. About the coolest (or maybe hottest) car I ever owned, purchased in Florida during the late 1970s, was a jade-green Buick Skylark two-door hardtop with pinstriping, white leather upholstery, wire wheels and a V8 engine, which was the envy of my friends and coworkers.
Other than that, I generally tend to view automobiles as transportation and little more. Still, the recent woeful tidings from Detroit do create a distressing sense of being cut adrift from all the familiar corporate landmarks that we once assumed would last forever.
No more Pontiacs? Someday soon, no more Plymouths or Dodges or Chryslers, except maybe as mere shells encasing a Fiat chassis and engine? Say it isn't so.
Steve Bouser is editor of The Pilot. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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